Recently I was leafing through an interesting article in a medical journal which dealt with patients’ perceptions regarding the dressing styles of their doctors. The study was of course in a European context and the important question addressed was what kind of dressers did patients prefer? The classic white coated type, the formal suit and tie type or the casual dressing type? Well, at least no prizes for guessing which type was least preferred.
The article reminded me of some of the ‘dressing’ issues of my own undergraduate days in medical college. Looking back I realize that some of the really good doctors that taught me weren’t the snazziest of dressers and neither did most of them give a damn about what we wore or didn’t wear. There were on the other hand quite a few professors who were obsessed with the way we budding doctors dressed. The most famous was of course was the one and only Dr FM of the surgery department. Dr FM was known for his antipathy towards any female medical student not wearing a sari (i.e. wearing something else other than a sari, not what you were thinking of you perv!). Many a female student has been castigated in the hallowed hallways of the surgical ward in the Trivandrum medical college for choosing to dress in a salwar/churidar (Still have not really figured out the exact difference between a churidar and a salwar. Only thing I know is that 1) Females are never really satisfied with the ones they have 2) They are costly 3) You are supposed to buy or at least facilitate the buying of truckloads of them for having a healthy and pleasant marriage).
Surprisingly though most of the ‘liberated’ gals in our class would comply with this unwritten FM commandment…at least during their surgical rotations. This, in spite of the practical and logistical difficulties of getting oneself rolled up in six yards of cloth every hectic morning. Stumbling into Dr FM while you’re in non-sari attire was always a pretty unpleasant affair for the females. Dr FM wouldn’t say much…. just walk away before you could even utter ‘Sari Sir’ (pun intended), but the look in his eyes would be of someone subjected to the most extreme form of betrayal. Would remind you of some of the bollywood movies where the ditched hero/heroine would emotionally say “ Nahi!!Key do ki yeh jhoot hai!”. Some wore the sari out of fear, some out of respect….and maybe some because they actually thought that they looked better in a sari! (We males definitely agree that some of these creatures did appear to be more eye-friendly in a sari…kind of an optical illusion thing I suppose).
Times have changed however. Nowadays for medical students (or for that matter any student) saris are strictly for special occasions only. So you have a party or some college festival, out comes your mother’s silk sari collection…smell of mothballs and all.
FM had a few lines in his rule book for the guys too. White coats with light colored shirts tucked into formal dark trousers, polished shoes…..the works. Jeans and other such informal trash were absolute no-nos. Compliance was on the lower side with the guys though. I mean we guys had our own limitations, especially those of us staying in the hostel. A pair of jeans would be good for a month or two without any kind of even remote contact with detergents and water…and maybe a couple of months more with the right perfume (actually some of us even tried the same ‘no detergent-no water’ trick for our dearest undies also…but then there are limitations to what even a good perfume can do!). White coats we did have, even though our ‘white’ coats were perpetually blessed with very interesting mixtures of shades from off-white to yellow to brown…….well, at least it matched with the color of our teeth. As for polished shoes…well the lil issue is that you need socks to wear shoes and our socks were kind of like our undies -classic examples of ‘toxic sock syndrome’….one whiff and you’re out cold (definitely more relevant and useful for our anesthesia rotations I think). So keeping in mind one of the most important parts of the ‘Hippocratic oath’ –the ‘first do no harm’ thing, we diligently used to forego the socks and shoes routine. And there was a definite patriotic angle too, I mean even Mahatma Gandhi didn’t wear shoes did he?
So do the patients’ really care how you dress? Yes and no I suppose….and it depends quite a lot on your local cultural context. We mallus unfortunately still live in a very male chauvinistic society where quite a few patients would still not bat an eyelid while addressing the younger female doctors as ‘sister’, assuming that they are nurses and not actual doctors. Not sure, but maybe in our mallu context, the amount of respect for a sari clad female doc is just a little bit more than the churidar clad one….my humble personal opinion that is…but then ultimately though it is how you carry yourself and of course the quality of your care and compassion that really matter!
N: All said and done, I have the deepest respect for Dr FM; he really was a person quite ahead of his times in many ways and quite a genuine human being and doctor.